Want to Get Away With Harassment? Become a Cop

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A little over a week ago, a
Kentucky state trooper
resigned following allegations that
he’d had sex with a woman he apprehended in exchange for not
bringing her into jail. Days earlier,
a Bay Area paper reported
that an officer stepped down
after assaulting a 17-year-old girl participating in the San
Leandro “police explorer” program. In early November, the two
NYPD detectives
who were accused of raping
a teenager in the back of a
police van resigned rather rather than face trial.

It’s been estimated that
every five days
, a police officer is caught in an act of
sexual abuse or harassment—a number cobbled together from
victim reports and press inquiries, and one that’s certainly
much higher given that only around
one-third of women
who are raped in this country report an
incident at all. Despite dozens of investigations and a

2011 special report
from the International Association of
Chiefs of Police on the problem of sexual violence, reform
efforts have ranged from ignoring the problem entirely to
implementing periodic harassment training. An inquiry from Al
Jazeera found only three out of 20 departments had taken the
IACP’s rather pointed recommendations, which included
“victim-centered” investigations carried out by outside

As powerful and well-compensated men are toppling across
industries, the question of what happens to abusers too obscure
or protected to become a part of the mass reorganization
remains: For every famous name cornered, harassed, and abused,
there are hundreds of women unable to share in the
recalibrations happening in more conspicuous industries.
Rebecca Traister, overcome with messages from women whose lives
and careers had been ruined,
wrote recently
of having to explain to women their abusers’
names were just on the wrong side of a Weinstein or a Lauer.

Moving beyond a movement
that ejects men by destroying their reputations and taking their
money requires looking at professions with more power and less

Moving beyond a movement that ejects men by destroying their
reputations and taking their money requires looking at
positions with more power and less spotlight, professions by
decades of institutional practice that let abusers go
unchecked. As Timothy Mahr, a former cop and criminologist at
the University of Missouri–St. Louis recently says, the police
“have policies for everything—they’re two volumes thick.” But
they don’t have many that halt sexual misconduct, and their
collective bargaining agreements negotiate pay raises and
vacation along with state accountability in the same breath.

For many women, particularly in service-oriented professions
like hospitality,
collective action can force management
to fire harassers
and create avenues for redress. But police unions have often
found themselves at odds with the broader labor movement. On a
theoretical level, they serve to protect private property and
were arguably created to control the working class; more
practically, they have been instrumental in battling
affirmative action and striking down reforms to curb abuses of
power like these.

Organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police—so named in
the early 20th century to distance itself from the associations
with the lowly term “union”—are powerful political lobbies, and
the contracts they negotiate with city agencies are often the
standard-bearers for how officers are disciplined. They’ve been
criticized by mainstream outlets for protecting bad cops

who use deadly force against unarmed black men.
papers have paid less attention to how they create safe haven
for serial harassers—and given the available data there are a
large number of abusers on the force. Even the IACP listed the
factors that give cops “opportunities for sexual misconduct,”
among them that cops are in a position to exercise power, with
little oversight, over vulnerable populations.

A few years ago,
an AP investigation in 41 states
suggested sexual
misconduct was among “the most prevalent type of complaint
among law officers.” The Cato Institute, a libertarian think
report from 2010
found harassment and abuse to be a
prevalent complaint against officers, second only to “excessive
force.” For women who are targeted by the police, the two often
go together. As Andrea Ritchie, a writer and advocate for women
of color assaulted by police, told Splinter
last year
, the sexual violence women experience at the
hands of the police can sometimes be overlooked to focus rage
on fatal encounters.

Another recent
investigation among the string of projects
sexual violence and American police found 70 percent of
assailants targeted crime victims, informants, motorists, and
participants in youth programs—people who already facing
barriers to speaking up, never mind having to report the crime
to another member of the PD. “Officers will go after people
they oftentimes don’t think are credible,” like sex workers,
people who are addicted to drugs, and those with long criminal
histories, says Timothy Mahr.

And even if survivors do report, the same rules that shield
officers from other charges prevent serial offenders from being
recognized. Collective bargaining agreements, often negotiated
behind closed doors, usually require that misconduct records
are purged after a period of 18 months to five years; if an
officer is investigated by his department, he is often given
access to materials including body cam footage and witness
statements prior to being called to testify. And in many states
with police officer bills of rights, even recommendations from
civilian review boards—police reformists’ favored solution to
police brutality and abuse—can be easily appealed, sometimes
under the eye of a department-appointed arbitrator.

There’s the “pattern of
similar behavior” that’s lost when officer records are

All of which protects cops whose use of force has proven to be
inappropriate or deadly, from a single reported incident to
repeated offenses, but proves particularly difficult for
rooting out sexual misconduct. Sexual assaulters have high
rates of repeat offenses. Domestic violence is one of the
greatest indicators of sexual harassment and abuse.

Advocates of keeping disciplinary records out of sight say it
keeps cops from being falsely accused or having their
reputations ruined by a single anonymous source—the kinds of
sources that have inspired women in other circumstances to come
forward. But in
62 of the 82 large cities where Reuters recently reviewed
police contracts
and local law, officer misconduct records
are purged, many regardless of what the source is. Of the
thousands of contracts in effect, very few—if any—make
significant exception for officers accused of sexual harassment
or on-duty assault.

Stephen Rushin is a researcher and criminologist at the Loyola
School of Law in Chicago. He’s spent the last couple of years
collecting police union contracts, analyzing more than 800
individual documents from across the country. He says he’s seen
only one contract in his research that made direct reference to
discipline for sexual misconduct, but worries more generally
about the “pattern of similar behavior” that’s lost when
officer records are purged.

Of the 81 cities’ contracts with local police departments
collected by Campaign Zero, a Black Lives Matter-affiliated
campaign to increase police transparency, only two contracts
address the problem: They have startling ramifications for an
officer accused of sexual misconduct, and happen to be in
Louisiana, a state
that’s only revoked six officer licenses
in the last dozen

When unions like these
negotiate contracts, it’s usually only the police in the room: an
overwhelmingly male voting bloc making rules to keep its own
installed and free of reprimand.

In Baton Rouge, the police department’s agreement with the city
stipulates that any complaint that involves “sexual misconduct,
sexual harassment, or domestic violence” be destroyed after
five years unless there are similar complaints—a period of time
Rushin says is generally on the longer end. (The city’s latest
contract is still under negotiation, following pushback from
the activist group Together Baton Rouge; the proposed 2018
agreement would have shortened that period of time, in some
cases, to 18 months.)
In accordance with the state of Louisiana
’s officer bill of
rights, an officer has the right to request instances of any
violation, including domestic violence or “domestic dispute,”
be deleted from his file.

None of which should be a surprise: Police unions have thrown
their political weight around elsewhere to ensure officers
accused of sexual misconduct aren’t punished, even in the
imperfect civilian system. In September, under threat of a new
oversight board, both
the Chicago and Illinois chapters
of the Fraternal Order of
Police invested heavily in lobbyists to soften the Law
Enforcement Sexaul Assault Investigation Act, resulting in an
amendment that would functionally gut the bill, removing the
requirement for Chicago police accused of rape to be
investigated by an outside arbitrator.

As Rushin points out, when unions like these negotiate
contracts, it’s usually only the police in the room: an
overwhelmingly male voting bloc making rules to keep its own
installed and free of reprimand. City agencies offer such
“employment protections” as these in lieu of pay raises, an odd
bastardization of the labor movement’s goals. And when records
are purged regularly, there is little chance of reform within
the department, even if women did want to come forward—which
they simply aren’t likely to, given the balance of risk and
reward if you’re a person considering going to the police to
report a policeman who assaulted you.

“Will this moment result in a larger number of cases against
the PD?” Mahr asks. “If officers are selecting victims with
respect to those that have ‘credibility’ issues, or if a woman
was assaulted 8 years ago by the police?Probably not.”

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